April retail sales stronger than expected

Retail industry sales for April (which exclude automobiles, gas stations, and restaurants) rose 4.4% over last year and rose 1% seasonally adjusted from March, according to the National Retail Federation. The gains were stronger than NRF had been anticipating.

NRF Chief Economist Rosalind Wells suggests that the best way to evaluate retailers’ performance would be to combine sales from March and April due to this year’s early Easter. Using that calculation, combined unadjusted sales from March and April rose 5.5% over the same period a year ago, which Wells feels gives a more accurate reading of the health of the retail industry.

“Retail sales in April demonstrate that there is continued momentum in the retail industry, despite the rising cost of gasoline,” said Rosalind Wells, NRF chief economist. “Retailers weathered the lack of a major holiday quite well last month and are looking forward to debuting summer merchandise in the next few weeks.”

April retail sales released today by the U.S. Commerce Department show that total retail sales (which include non-general merchandise categories such as autos, gasoline stations and restaurants) rose 1.4% seasonally adjusted from March and increased 7.2% unadjusted year-over-year. Sales at gasoline stations rose 20.1% over a year ago as gasoline prices increased, which inflated total retail sales.

Despite the absence of a major promotional holiday, most retailers in NRF categories saw gains last month between four and five percent over last year. Consumers continued to embrace spring fashions at clothing and clothing accessories stores, which saw sales rise an unadjusted 4.3% over last April and 2.8% adjusted from last month. The arrival of spring also brought traffic to building material and garden equipment and supplies dealers, whose sales increased 4.8% unadjusted over last year and 1.2% from March. In addition, electronics and appliances stores continued their climb, with sales rising 5.5% unadjusted over last year though decreasing 0.1% adjusted from March.

The National Retail Federation expects sales to increase 5% in the second quarter and 4.8% this year over 2004.